Jimmy Casey and Jerry the Bear
Soda pop-drinking bears aren’t too particular. Jerry the Bear was just as happy guzzling an off-brand as a Pepsi or a Coke, but if he had his druthers, it would be chocolate with a carbonated fizz.
In the 1920s and ’30s, “Jerry the native black bear” was the major tourist attraction along the upper Rogue River, where a line of competing auto camps stretched northward toward Prospect.
At Casey’s Camp, Jerry was the star, and owner Jimmy Casey made sure he was happy. On those inevitable scorching summer days, the bear even had a personal swimming hole.
James Allen Casey was a newcomer, arriving with his family in the valley just after 1920. He was already in his 50s.
Born in Missouri in 1871, by the time he was 10 his father and mother had moved on to Kansas. There, in 1884, his father suddenly died. It wasn’t long before Jimmy found his way to Nevada, where he farmed and eventually met his wife, Ethel.
Perhaps it was the fresh air along the Rogue River that turned Jimmy away from farming and urged him to dabble in the hospitality business.
Settling on some land at a bend in the river, near today’s Lost Creek Lake, Jimmy set up eight cabins and a combination roadside store and diner, offering a telephone booth, gasoline, and “an excellent chicken lunch for 50 cents.” He called it Casey’s Camp.
How an animal trainer and public relations guru fit into Jimmy’s resume still remains the proverbial mystery.
Knowing that advertising was good for business, Jimmy had postcards printed with Jerry the Bear’s photograph on them. The post cards sold better than any of those chicken lunches.
The camp was open all year, offering trout and salmon fishing, deer hunting, swimming, hiking and “beautiful side trips.” It was a great location, but it couldn’t last long.
Jimmy would later claim that he had filed a homestead claim on the property, but there wasn’t a claim to be found.
The problem was that Casey’s Camp sat on federal land, and when Oregon wanted to buy it and develop a park, Jimmy claimed “squatter’s rights” and demanded $10,000 for the improvements he had already made.
The federal government wouldn’t sell to the state until Jimmy’s claim was settled. After two years of wrangling, Jimmy was faced with a choice of $275 cash, or leasing the property at $13.75 per year and continuing his business for three more years. Jimmy took the lease.
In the summer of 1937, a group of 25 “brush engineers” from the Civilian Conservation Corps moved onto the property, put in a parking area, picnic shelter, restrooms and a boat ramp. The state had named it and claimed it as Casey State Park.
Jimmy’s lease on the property was extended until 1946, when the state offered him $500 to vacate the property. Jimmy was 75, his wife had died three years earlier and, although he had remarried, Jimmy was tired. He took the deal and retired to Medford.
Jimmy died in 1956. Except for the name of the park, there’s nothing left to remind us of the farmer-showman who changed careers late in life.
As for Jerry the Bear, he had already made his escape into the Upper Rogue forests in 1932. He left a photo or two in the Southern Oregon Historical Society and at least one on the Internet (if you can still find it). It’s one of Jimmy’s original penny postcards — a photo of that pop-guzzling Jerry the Bear.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.